Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a place where nobody ever dies or gets sick, a place where school shootings do not exist and natural disasters do not destroy? The reality is that we live in a broken world where there is death and tragedy, and sadly, children are no strangers to loss and grief. While dealing with loss and grief can be difficult for anyone, children’s reactions may differ from those of adults. Here are some suggestions to consider when helping a child who is grieving.
Explore the Child’s Level of Understanding
The age of the child will affect the way they understand loss and grief. Younger children might not understand the permanence of death or may believe they are responsible for a tragic event. Older children engage in concrete thinking and might ask for more details if they want to know more. They will understand the consequences of a loss and that a person who dies will not be around anymore.
Prepare the Child
Children need to know they are safe and secure, so it is best to hear hard news from someone they feel safe with, someone they trust. While you might think it’s in their best interest to either wait or spare them bad news, it is important for children to hear as soon as possible so they can start facing the loss.
It is also important to prepare them for what lies ahead. If this is the beginning of a long illness, telling children early helps them prepare. If there is a funeral coming up, explain what they will encounter in the days ahead. Even if a child was not directly exposed to a tragedy such as a school shooting or natural disaster, he or she may have heard the news or adult conversations and still feel stress or anxiety.
Listen to the Child
Children often go in and out of grief, so be patient. Answer any questions they have, even if they are hard questions. Some children might ask a lot of questions, some might communicate without words through actions and reactions. A grieving child might have a physical symptom of grief like a loss of appetite, or emotional symptoms like mood swings or severe crying. It is not uncommon for a child to revert to an earlier stage of development and suck their thumb or wet the bed. Children might become aggressive when angry or clingy when scared.
Talk to the Child
When you do say something, be direct and honest so that there is less confusion for the child. Use simple concrete language, avoiding euphemisms. And always provide reassurance, letting the child know you care. Here are some guidelines when you talk to a child:
- Remind the child that someone will care for him or her. It is helpful to name that person if at all possible.
- Assure the child that God is always there to comfort us, and that we can take all our sadness and pain to God in prayer.
- Emphasize that it is okay to feel sad or angry about what happened, even if others do not feel that way. And point out that these feelings might last a while and that is okay.
- Reassure the child that he or she is not at fault for this situation. This situation is not the result of something they said or did.
Allow Yourself and the Child to Grieve
If someone is dying, encourage children to say good-bye and express their emotions. And don’t feel you need to hide your own grief. Remembering the person who died is part of the healing process. Share memories and pictures, talking about the loved one. If a traumatic event means there are changes, involve children in those decisions as appropriate. Giving children choices whenever possible helps them regain a sense of control.
For a list of helpful resources for ministry leaders, click here.
Mimi Larson is the CRC's Children's Ministry Catalyzer. If you have questions or challenges about faith formation in children, choosing curriculum, equipping volunteers, and more, contact Mimi at [email protected].